The Future Is Here
We may earn a commission from links on this page

George Takei describes his experience in a Japanese internment camp

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Actor and activist George Takei recently made an appearance on Democracy Now! where, in addition to discussing Arizona's recent anti-LGBTQ bill and his role as Mr. Sulu, he talked about his family's experience inside a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War.

The clip above is about seven minutes long, but here's the transcript:

AMY GOODMAN: So, you were born in?

GEORGE TAKEI: Los Angeles.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, at the age of eight, you were interned?

GEORGE TAKEI: No, at the age of five.

AMY GOODMAN: At the age of five.

GEORGE TAKEI: We came out when I was eight.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about that. What happened?

GEORGE TAKEI: Yes, well, you know, it wasn't just my birth in the U.S. My mother was born in Sacramento, California. My father was a San Franciscan. They were Northern Californians. And they met in Los Angeles, so I was born in Southern California. But there's no north-south divide in our family. We're Americans. We were and are—my parents have passed now, but we were citizens of this country. We had nothing to do with the war. We simply happened to look like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor. But without charges, without trial, without due process—the fundamental pillar of our justice system—we were summarily rounded up, all Japanese Americans on the West Coast, where we were primarily resident, and sent off to 10 barb wire internment camps—prison camps, really, with sentry towers, machine guns pointed at us—in some of the most desolate places in this country: the wastelands of Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, the blistering hot desert of Arizona, of all places, in black tarpaper barracks. And our family was sent two-thirds of the way across the country, the farthest east, in the swamps of Arkansas.

And it's from this experience that, when I was a teenager, my father told me that our democracy is very fragile, but it is a true people's democracy, both as strong and as great as the people can be, but it is also as fallible as people are. And that's why good people have to be actively engaged in the process, sometimes holding democracy's feet to the fire, in order to make it a better, truer democracy.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: If I'm not mistaken, the governor of California back then during the internment process was Earl Warren, who later became a justice of the Supreme Court, perhaps one of the most liberal justices, but he supported those efforts back then.

GEORGE TAKEI: Well, this illustrates the hysteria that ran throughout the country. Actually, Earl Warren was the attorney general of the state of California at that time.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Oh, attorney general, right.

GEORGE TAKEI: He took an oath on the Constitution. He knew the Constitution. But knowing the Constitution and knowing what he was going to do was going to be against the Constitution, his ambition took over. He wanted to be governor. And he ran on the "get rid of the Japs" platform—and won. And as you stated, he later went on to become the "liberal" chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. So, even with the Supreme Court, there is that human fallibility. We—the good people have to be engaged in the process. And that's what's so shameful about the Arizona Legislature, that people like that, people who don't think, people who don't listen and people who do damage to the state get elected and dominate in legislatures.

AMY GOODMAN: Just last week, February 19th, that's the anniversary. It's called the Day of Internment—

GEORGE TAKEI: No, Day of Remembrance.

AMY GOODMAN: Day of Remembrance. February 19th, 1942, the Executive Order 9066 signed requiring internment of all U.S. residents of Japanese ancestry.

GEORGE TAKEI: By a liberal Democrat president, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you understand at the time as a five-year-old?

GEORGE TAKEI: I was a five-year-old. My parents told—my father told us that we were going on a long vacation to a place called Arkansas. It was an adventure. I thought everyone took vacations by leaving home in a railroad car with sentries, armed soldiers at both ends of the car, sitting on wooden benches. And whenever we approached a town, we were forced to draw the curtains, the shade. We were not supposed to be seen by the people out there. We thought that was the way things happened. We saw people crying, you know, and we thought, "Well, why are they crying? Daddy said we're going on a vacation." So we were innocent children.

When we arrived at Rohwer, in the swamps of Arkansas, there were these barb wire fences and sentry towers. But children are amazingly adaptable. And so, the barb wire fence became no more intimidating than a chain link fence around a school playground. And the sentry towers were just part of the landscape. We adjusted to lining up three times a day to eat lousy food in a noisy mess hall. And at school, we began every school day with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. I could see the barb wire fence and the sentry towers right outside my schoolhouse window as I recited the words "with liberty and justice for all," an innocent child unaware of the irony.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And once your family was released from the internment, what—the process of putting your lives back together, what had happened to your possessions, to your home? And talk about that process, as well.

GEORGE TAKEI: We lost everything. We were given a one-way ticket to wherever in the United States we wanted to go to, plus $20. And many people were very embittered about their West Coast experience, and they chose to go to the Midwest, places like Chicago or Milwaukee, or further east to New Jersey, New York, Boston. My parents decided to go back to Los Angeles. We were most familiar there. But we found that it was very difficult. Housing was impossible. They would deny us housing. Jobs were very, very difficult. My father's first job was as a dishwasher in a Chinatown restaurant. Only other Asians would hire us. And our first home was on skid row, with the stench of urine everywhere and those scary, smelly, ugly people lined up leaning on brick walls. They would stagger around and barf right in front of us. My baby sister, who was now five years old, said, "Mama, let's go back home," meaning behind those barb wire fences. We had adjusted to that. And coming home was a horrific, traumatic experience for us kids.


The entire interview is about 52 minutes long, and you can watch it here.